You walk down the street every day and fall into a hole. This happens day after day; you fall in, climb out, and continue on down the street. This goes on for a long time, until one day as you’re climbing out of the hole you think, I have a problem. Still, you keep falling into the hole. Once, just before you fall in, it occurs to you that you might do this another way. You keep falling in. One day as you approach the hole you focus, stop, make a decision, then simply walk around the hole. This feels good! As the weeks go by, sometimes you fall in but mostly you go around, especially when you remember to remember to think about it. Until one day, you go down another street.
Change does happen! But why is it so hard?
Neuropsychologists have likened habits, thinking patterns and default behaviors to ruts in our brains. If you’ve ever driven down a snow-packed Chicago alley you know how hard it is to get your wheels out of those deep ruts! It’s much easier to take your hands off the wheel and let the car steer itself, right? The ruts in your brain are no different; pulling out of them to create a new track takes a LOT of energy. Your defaults, repeated over and over, are wired into your brain and reinforced each time you practice them. No wonder it’s so hard to make a change!
When you set an intention to climb out of your default, whatever it is, it’s useful to know that you’re planning to do nothing short of rewiring your brain. Neuroscientist pioneer Donald Hebb first theorized that neurons that fire together, wire together. Once you begin a new behavior or pattern of thinking, you are actually growing new synapses which are the connectors between nerve endings in your brain. Frequent and regular repetition creates steady neural firing and accelerates the rewiring. The more you repeat that new way of behaving or thinking, the stronger the new neural connections will get; building a sufficient network to make it become your new default. In effect, you’re turning a neural goat path into a freeway!
Years ago it was thought that you were stuck with the brain you have for life. Here’s the good news: Recent research supports the idea that not only can the brain change (this is called neuroplasticity) but you can use your mind to bring it about. It takes a hard focus on making the new behavior or way of thinking stick. Keep your eye on the road and hang on to that wheel! With a laser focus you can steer out of the ruts.
It’s easier said than done so be patient with yourself; two steps forward, one step back is still progress. Remember you’re pulling out of ruts that have been there a long time, perhaps for years or most of your life. As Nike postulates, just do it. The more you do, the easier it will get until it seems like you always did it this way.
Know that as your own CEO, you are the boss of you. If your body wants that ice cream before bed, if your mind wants to stay with the negative stories you’ve been telling yourself, make an executive decision, focus on where you’re going and what you want. At this point, it’s truly mind over matter.
Another piece of good news: developing new behaviors or patterns of thinking is great for your brain! In her book Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being, neuroscience expert Linda Graham states learning and trying new things can keep your brain younger. You got this!
Louise Dimiceli-Mitran is a counselor and music psychotherapist in Chicago. Start a new habit and visit her at www.rhythmswithin.com